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7 Ways to Make Yourself Follow Through

What to do when flogging yourself to do a task doesn’t work.

Key points

  • Getting started on a task early can ensure that it will be done well.
  • Part of motivating oneself to start a difficult task is recognizing and accepting that it will be uncomfortable.
  • In order to follow through on a task, it helps to keep it top of mind by utilizing reminders.
Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

When we're facing a big, hairy task, it's tempting to procrastinate until the last minute, at which point you have time only to do a marginal job.

My clients have found these tactics helpful in getting started early and staying the course until the project is done well.

You needn’t use all these tactics. Just pick the one or three you predict will work best for you.

Picture the benefits of following through and the liabilities of not. For example, if you have to give a talk and do a great job, you’ll get huge applause, your reputation will grow, you'll have influenced your audience's thinking and/or behavior, and you’ll feel great. If you procrastinate starting to work on the presentation and thus it flops, your reputation will suffer. It may even contribute to losing your job.

Rectitude. Most of us want to do the right thing, the responsible thing. Reminding yourself that following through is the right thing to do may motivate you.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Successful people realize that not everything will be pleasurable but that it’s worth the short-term discomfort in exchange for the larger long-term gain. If you fire that bad employee, it will feel yucky short-term but you’ll derive far more happiness and far more good will accrue from a better employee.

Drug addicts are an example of people who make the opposite tradeoff. Rather than take a baby step toward improving their situation, they escape that discomfort for the short-term comfort of getting high, even though that imposes great long-term liabilities.

Invoke familial guilt. People spend years in therapy trying to reduce their feelings of guilt and shame caused by family members, but some of my clients have found that invoking guilt not only motivates them to get tasks done but paradoxically makes them feel less guilt and shame about their entire lives. So it might help to picture your parents, your significant other, and children sitting around a table as you explain whether you’re going to follow through on the task. In doing that, you may find yourself feeling guilty, embarrassed to admit you won’t do the task, and that may motivate you to follow through.

Public commitment with a painful deadline. Another way to use embarrassment to move you to follow through is to let people you care about know that you’re committed to getting that task done. For example, you might email friends saying, “I’m both excited and dreading having to finally clean out my apartment. I want to get it all done this weekend. You’re invited to my house to celebrate at 7 p.m. Sunday.” If they came over and the apartment was still a pigsty, you’d be embarrassed. That can motivate you to get it done.

Of course, that can also be applied to work tasks. Email your colleagues and boss saying something like, “I’m pleased that the vice president has chosen me to write that report. I want you to know that I plan to get it on your desks Monday morning.” If the coworkers showed up on Monday morning and the report wasn’t in their inbox, they’d view the person as having made an empty promise.

The thermometer. If a charity wants to raise, say 100,000 dollars, they may put a thermometer on a sign with the numbers 20,000, 40,000, 60,000, 80,000, and 100,000 along the side, and each time they reach a milestone, color in that part of the thermometer.

Similarly, break down your daunting project into easy-to-accomplish milestones and put those on a thermometer you’d keep on your desk or anywhere else you’d see it all the time. When you’ve completed a milestone, color it in. We all enjoy crossing things off our to-do list. Coloring in your thermometer is a more visible and perhaps more pleasurable way to do that.

When my wife was overwhelmed at the thought of doing her dissertation, I put such a thermometer on the refrigerator. Every time she completed a milestone, we colored it in together in purple and I gave her a kiss.

Don’t know how to divide your project into the right baby steps? That’s the time to ask for help.

Keep it top of mind. Keep reminding yourself how you’ll benefit if you follow through, how you’d be hurt if you don’t. Supplement by putting a Post-it note on your monitor’s frame, bathroom mirror, even writing it on your hand. Multiple times a day, say aloud the benefits of getting it done and the liabilities of not. That may actually help change the neurons in the brain associated with doing that task.

It’s more important than you think. I asked an audience of top executives, “Raise your hand if you think of yourself as a procrastinator.” Fifteen percent raised their hand. At a talk to an audience of unemployed people, I asked the same question. Ninety percent raised their hand. Enough said.

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